Tuesday, January 13, 2009

An Appreciation and Criticism of the “New” Reformers

1) A Stress on the Importance of Penal Substitution

Man is guilty. God is holy. Jesus lived a perfect life. Jesus died in the place of sinners, bearing the wrath of God. Although this isn’t all that the Bible has to say about the work of Christ it is central to what Jesus accomplished on the cross. In fact, the early church saw Jesus’ substitutionary death as an important facet in the gospel they preached. Paul said that the fact that Christ died for our sins was a matter of first importance. Certainly substitution is in view in that passage. For Paul, along with the ‘New Reformers’, penal substitution was an integral part of the gospel he preached.

2) An Emphasis on Systematic Theology and Practical Living

I went to a reformed seminary where there was a heavy emphasis on systematic theology. I remember one day during a book sale a group of students rushed over to the systematic theology section in hopes of some good finds. There are ups and downs to systematic theology. A particularly beneficial ‘up’ is that is helps us understand what the bible says about a given topic and allows Christian’s to apply biblical truths to their lives. In the new reformed camp there is a heavy emphasis on practical theology (i.e. C.J. Mahaney, John Piper, Joshua Harries, etc.). True Christian living is grounded in the truth of God (i.e. because this is true, do this).

3) An Appreciation for History

One of the greatest gifts the ‘reformed’ tradition has given us is its stress on church history. There is a mark of humility in their willingness to look to those who have gone before them; they use men and women from years past to teach them how to live for Christ and gain insight into the written word of God.

4) The Importance of Heart Religion

John Piper, perhaps more than any of the reformers, shows from God’s word that the triune God doesn’t just want us to perform our ‘duty’. Rather, he desires that we seek our true everlasting joy in the God who created us and saves us through his Son. The illustration of a man giving flowers to his wife and saying, “honey this is my duty” shows the foolishness of trying to serve God without a heart for God. Holiness is truly a matter of the heart.

5) Delight in the Sovereignty of God

Many people find the doctrine of election offensive. But reformers truly delight in the grace of God in drawing dead sinners to himself and redeeming them from the slavery of sin. In eternity past each individual Christian was chosen by God out of his sheer grace, not based on anything they have done. The God of grace simply loves sinners and awakens them from their dead state. Why? Because he loved them.

6) The Importance of Justification by Faith

How are sinners made right with God? By Works? No. They are made right with God through their faith in Jesus Christ. In reformed theology the doctrine of Justification is seen to be central to the theology of the apostle Paul. Because of what Christ did we can have everlasting fellowship with God. We no longer need to fear judgment because there is no longer any condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. God looks at all those who have placed their faith in Jesus and declares, “Righteous!”

There are many more positive things that could be said about the ‘new’ reformers; however, there are some criticisms that should be raised.

1) Incomplete Gospel

This is one of my serious concerns for the Reformed tradition. While they rightly stress the fact that a gospel preached that excludes the death of Jesus on behalf of our sins is incomplete they tend to error in that they don’t emphasize the Resurrection of Christ and the Lordship of Christ as much. They are good at looking to 1 Corinthians 15. 1-3 but sometimes fail to emphasize Romans 1.1-4. I’m not saying that they don’t emphasize this at all. But it seems to me that their Gospel tends to be a statement of the doctrine of penal substitution. “God is Holy. Man is a sinner. Jesus lived a perfect life. Jesus died for our sins so that we could be forgiven. Jesus rose from the dead.” However, one is hard pressed to find the gospel laid out this way in the bible. Penal substitution is central to the gospel but it is not the sum of the gospel. The gospel is about the fact that although Jesus was killed on a cross God raised him to life; he has been designated as the Messiah (or the true Lord of the world). By believing in this Jesus we can have forgiveness of our sins. This too needs unpacking but both the resurrection and death of Christ need to be stressed. The Gospel is a statement about Christ and what he has accomplished. These things also need to be seen in the context of God’s relationship to Israel. Too often the gospel begins at Eden and then skips ahead to the cross. However, a significant portion of the bible is written about God’s chosen people. Although it may seem tough we need to get serious about the fact that what Jesus did was the climax of Israel’s history. People like N.T. Wright make a similar error; however, he has it the other way around. He stresses cosmic facet of the gospel (i.e. Christ’s lordship) but de-emphasizes the forgiveness of sins as part of the proclamation. This is how a person can appreciate both the reformation and N.T. Wright. Both have good things to say but both fall short in some respects.

2) Making Imputation the Center

Sometimes people talk as if imputation were the center of the bible. While I do passionately believe in the imputation of Christ’s righteousness (however I do prefer what Michael Bird calls ‘Incorporated Righteousness’) I don’t think that it is the center of the bible. I also believe that it can be stated in different ways (just like Michael Bird). One would be hard pressed to prove that the imputation of Christ’s moral righteousness is the central idea of the bible that the OT points forward to. The doctrine itself is not found in any single text. Some texts talk about being ‘reckoned’ righteous but this does not lay out the doctrine in its full form. In other words, nowhere in the bible does it say, “We are sinners, Jesus lived a perfect life, Jesus’ moral righteousness is imputed to us.” There are texts that come close but it is better to let the texts speak for themselves.

We constantly need to be shaping our beliefs by the word of God. There are many things that are to be learned about justification. We do know true things but we haven’t nailed it yet. We need to explore the fact that when Paul talks about justification it takes place in the context of Jew and Gentile relations. We need to avoid the idea that we have arrived and have said all there is to say about this great doctrine.

With that said Justification is incredibly important. God does declare us righteous by virtue of our union with Christ. This doesn’t happen by anything we do but by faith alone. What is true of Jesus is true of us. As important as this doctrine is, I think we can stand united with those who vary on their understanding of this doctrine. The central thing is that God declares us to be righteous by faith by virtue of our union with Christ. Some people preach a heretical justification, just like those Paul was facing off against in Galatians, but we need to be very careful in making this claim and our reasons need to be biblically grounded.

3) Skipping Over Israel

Not all of the reformers do this but there is a disturbing silence about Israel out there. As I said earlier, when presenting the story of the Bible, many just skip over Israel. However, what Jesus did is the climax of Israel’s history. Jesus is the messiah of Israel and the whole world. Even the great passage of the suffering servant is written in the context of Israel’s exile. This will help us understand why the fact that Jesus is the messiah is good news. This too needs further exploration if we are to be faithful to the biblical texts.


Mason said...

Nick, good topic, and something I've been dealing with quite a bit myself lately.
This group of "New Refomers" to use your term, seems to be increasingly influential and vocal, in some circles at least, so I've made it a point to study where they are coming from.
Overall I think I might be a little less affable toward them than you seem to be, but I think your pro's and con's were well stated.

Quick question before I drone on too much more, you said these New Reformers have created "an Appreciation for History". I'm curious how you mean that? Do you mean Reformation-Puritan history? If so I'd agree. Or, do you mean Second Temple history/early church/and the broader history of the Christian Tradition? If the second where do you feel you see that?

Nicholas P. Mitchell said...

Hey Mason,

When I mentioned that they have created an appreciation for history I was referring to 'church history'. I don't think that early church is stressed as much but it is there (i.e. Stephen Nichols has a great book on the doctrine of Christ in the early church). But more in terms of biography in the reformation-puritan tradition. However, I am willing to be corrected on this as I am sure there are many remormers out there that promote early church study.

Michael F. Bird said...


A very well balanced series of observations (and done in a gentle spirit too!).

The grace with you

Nicholas P. Mitchell said...

Thanks Michael!

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